A town like Ennis
On a visit home over Christmas, writer and actor Mark O'Halloran reflects on growing up in a small town, with Brian O'Connell
It's early afternoon on St Stephen's Day and the streets of Ennis are groggily waking from their Christmas slumber. Pub-crawlers and chip punnets have yet to inhabit the town, and the main square wouldn't be out of place in a Sergio Leone reel.
Known locally as the "Height", the town centre is dominated by a statue of Daniel O'Connell who was elected here in 1828, paving the way for Catholic Emancipation a year later. Almost a century after that, Eamon de Valera addressed a jubilant Clare electorate from the same spot, delivering his famous, "Well, as I was saying to you when we were interrupted" speech. Yet for generations of Ennis youths, the historical angle was entirely arbitrary. From greasy-haired metal heads to well-trimmed mods, the steps around the Height became a geographic constant on which to plant their rebellious selves.
Flagons passed freely round the "hairys at the Height", as they became known, as they sat in judgment, rain or shine, pouring scorn on the seemingly orthodox lives of those around them. You were a nobody in Ennis if you hadn't sat at the Height at least once in your youth. It was, in retrospect, a site of disaffected youth and provided physical refuge for those who didn't quite fit in anywhere else.
Mark O'Halloran often found himself drawn to the Height as a youngster. In the early 1980s, there wasn't much for the non-sporty, creative types to do in a town such as Ennis. You either conformed or you kicked back, allowing your feelings to be articulated via British rock stars or dog-eared Beat classics.
For O'Halloran, the role of outsider, evident in his writing, owes its origins to growing up in Ennis, out of synch with the prevailing mood. The sense of dislocation began at school, at Rice College, a Christian Brothers domain where Pádraig Pearse and GAA often played second fiddle to education. Nowadays, the secondary school has expanded almost beyond recognition, and the brothers have long since left the hood. Walking around, O'Halloran is hard pressed to excavate a sentimental soft spot for his old alma mater. "I think you should hate your school days," he says, standing outside the playground, "I don't blame anyone for it and nothing particularly evil happened.
They were very dark days - the way they taught the kids was dark and I don't have particularly fond memories." With four of his brothers passing through the school before him, O'Halloran was known more by association than as an individual. When it came time to transfer to the secondary school next door, his feelings of otherness accelerated.
"In secondary school you couldn't study art, unless you did it after school, and the idea of extending the school day in any way was not an option. It's not that I had this great desire to paint, but I was drawn to the arts. I was catastrophically bad at sports, and so rock 'n' roll became a means to escape and explore another world. At home, there was Hotel California and Queen's Greatest Hits, but with the gang I hung about with, we were into anything that was different. In 1985 the Jesus and Mary Chain happened and that really changed our lives."
Those who didn't conform stood out in Ennis, a town commercial in its function, but decidedly rural in its outlook. O'Halloran and his ilk found some safety in numbers. "There were very few of us really.
"The 'hairys at the Height' qualified, but we were vaguely going towards the Goth thing, with bad haircuts and black clothes. I remember one guy was threatening to beat me up once and he said, "I'm going to kick your head in, you Echo and the Bunnymen wanker!" That was kind of interesting. I think those gangs are so important as a kid. If I had been born 15 year earlier I would have been a mod and I think you should belong to a gang and have a bad haircut or two as a kid. It's important." After secondary school, he found himself following the family tradition of going to college and found himself in NUI Galway studying science. The experience didn't last long, yet it had lasting influences in other respects.
'I THINK THERE was an expectation to do well. All of the family would have gone to college, and of course I made the mistake of following suit. I didn't last very long and I failed all my exams and left. We wanted to live the rock 'n' roll dream, which was hard because I'd never joined a band. Living life seemed more important - would you go to London or New York? That was the important thing, not what you did when you got there." Galway wasn't a total waste of time - he was introduced to theatre for the first time, courtesy of Druid. "I was blown away by it. I'd never seen a play and the idea even that I would have stood up in school and said 'I want to be a writer or actor' would have been impossible. I headed to Amsterdam for a year and came back to audition for the Gaiety School of Acting. It took a lot to say I wanted to be an actor."
Within a year of graduating, O'Halloran was in the West End with a bit part in a touring version of Juno and the Paycock. In the following years the work was steady, and he worked with practically every major Irish company, doing some memorable work with Corn Exchange in particular. Coming back to Ennis in those years, he felt more and more alienated, as the friends he sought refuge in had long since departed.
"When I came back, I realised all my friends had gone.
"We didn't want to stick around, and I didn't belong there anymore. When I came back I spent time with my family, which was weird, because when I lived there, I didn't spend time with my family at all. In those 10 years too, Ennis changed from being a small town to being a large one. It was interesting watching that." It wasn't until he was 30 that O'Halloran began writing formally. A friend of his ran a small theatre company and he was bullied into writing something to fill an hour-long slot. The play, The Head of Red O'Brien, was picked up by the Swedish National Theatre in 2003, and productions of it have subsequently been staged in Finland, Poland and Russia. Not a bad start, then.
"It did incredibly well. The next thing, the guy who later produced [ his film] Adam & Paul asked had I got anything else, and I had all these 'junkie diaries', as I called them, which came from things I saw on the streets that I thought were funny. He hooked me up with Lenny Abrahamson and off we went." In creative terms, Adam & Paul came about when O'Halloran's middle-class upbringing collided with Dublin's heroin class. "I used to think that my observational eye was an actor's eye in that I'd look at characters and think about them. But in hindsight, it was a writer's imagination. I could make up stories about people or I could see stories very instantly.
"I'd often look at the way people interacted on the street and I'd think about what was going on there. I sat on that imagination for a long time. I kept lots of diaries and notes on things but never seriously did anything about it until the screenplay for Adam & Paul. I had this hangup that I was from Ennis and no-one from Ennis could be an artist."
Since Adam & Paul, O'Halloran has emerged as one of the most important new voices in Irish writing. His preoccupation with poverty, hopelessness and the human condition is noticeable by its singularity, as a host of Irish writers have arguably failed to take account of the human cost of economic change in Ireland over the past two decades.
In Prosperity, the groundbreaking four-part series for RTÉ, O'Halloran and Abrahamson succeeded in exposing the Tiger's forgotten underclass, casting a caustic eye on those relegated to the fringes of the new Ireland. It made for bleak, compulsive viewing.
"I'm really interested in hopelessness and how it arrives. In Prosperity I wanted to look at poverty and say it's still there - not because of laziness, but helplessness and fear. The character of Georgie, for instance, was one of those people beaten senseless at school and told he was useless. I'm interested in people who get damaged in that kind of way because they have a lot to tell us about ourselves really." Sentimentalists beware though; it's not just simply a case of having "old Ireland" back again. "I'm slow to criticise Ireland. I think change is constant and sometimes we are overly nostalgic for the past. I thought the past was terrible. But I think the present is equally terrible."
And if Prosperity questioned the social cost of our economic upturn, Garage looked at the emotional consequences. Having teamed up again with Abrahamson, the film has earned several awards, and gets a significant European release in the coming months in France, Italy, Spain and the UK. "There's a lot of Ennis in Garage. I don't mean literally, the community in Garage is much smaller, but the same darkness is there in both."
Walking around Ennis last week, the town has changed almost beyond recognition. Large-scale industrial estates inhabit the outskirts, and the once disused rail tracks, where much of O'Halloran's teenage exploits occurred, are once again active with freight and passenger services to and from Limerick. "There's even taxis here now," he says, "It's a much larger and more prosperous town and it's weird when I see it. I was walking around on Christmas Eve and it is incredibly beautiful. I was nearly conned into believing I could live here again. The town is now filled with Polish and other communities and it's great. It adds a sense of vibrancy and multiculturalism."
NEXT UP FOR O'Halloran is a second series for RTÉ, this time dealing with community, or the lack of it. "It's set in an apartment block and each episode is exploring the idea of what community is now. I'm trying to find out what are community events, are they the cutting off of water or the breaking down of lifts. Through these, I want to explore tensions that are there and not being looked at." He's also about to get his head around another screenplay, entitled Shame, dealing with a blackmailing youth, and due for release sometime in 2009. "It's about a man who is lower middle class and works in the docks in Dublin. It starts with him in a public toilet trying to lure a 17-year-old boy into a sexual tryst. The boy turns out to be a bit psychotic and tells him he's going to shame him. It's a bit of a wild premise and not going to be an easy film. Although, it is going to have a happy ending, which is something I haven't toyed with before. I generally think everything ends in catastrophe."
We've been walking around Ennis for an hour. It's close to evening and the town has just turned on its Christmas lights. The compact streets are bustling once again, with the footpaths clearly too narrow for the increase in daytime revellers. Cubans and Kosovans, Kenyans and culchies squeeze past. The setting is hugely enticing, like a mini-Berlin minus the avant-garde. It's at once alluring and limiting. As we say our goodbyes at the Height, O'Halloran recalls the moment he realised he needed to leave. Someone had scrawled graffiti on the sacred meeting spot - an act of defiance by a defiant few.
"Heavy Metle Loud and Poud", it read. "I knew then I had to go."